Never ever have I been as relieved to reach a place as I was when I got out of the jeep into the streets of Num. After a small quest to restock on cookies, kerosene and a welcome meal of fried noodles with eggs, we were ready to start afresh. A local man led us to a steep trail not mentioned on the map. Doubtful about the advice we’d been given in the previous days, PJ and I decided to follow the map and take the road, which was easier for my ankle as well. Marylene and Marie-Caroline headed down on the trail.
The ankle has been doing OK, though it is a severe weak spot. I twisted it again on day two and wore my brace for many days after on the difficult trails of the ridge. Especially going downhill can be problematic. After the long day into Barhabise, involving 1700 height meters down, I got burn marks on my foot and leg from the brace and I could not wear it anymore. Here is a special thanks however to everyone who told me I had to take it with me: Laurens, Loes and Harold; without it I would have had to throw in the towel a long time ago.
What we did not know was that the trail had been altered because of landslides, and that the map was wrong. We lost two hours going through a maze of rice fields, suddenly coming to a dead end and having to backtrack. We had been following random tracks through random rice fields all this time so we assumed it to lead somewhere. When we finally found the track it was huge. Not the best start for leg 2, but that track was promising: a highway to basecamp.
We all agreed to wait for each other by the bridge down to the Arun Nadi river. Of course, because we lost so much time, the other two waited long and then thought we must have already left, so they pushed on. There was no reception so we could not contact each other. It wouldn’t have been as problematic if it wasn’t for the fact that PJ either forgot the steripen in Kathmandu or it got stolen, so we were left without a filter. We didn’t make it into the next town. We bought some sodas on the way and got to sleep on a family’s front porch.
We set out really early the next day to find them, and were reunited in Seduwa the next morning at 9. They were extremely worried, we were very dehydrated and on the verge of starting to drink unfiltered water. We got one filter from them, in case we’d lose each other again. I felt very grateful for that. We got our permits checked and then we entered into the Makalu-Barun national park.
Makalu-Barun is one of the wildest, wettest areas in all of Nepal, holding some of its steepest terrain. The national park joins other protected areas in China and is home to, amongst others: tigers, snow and clouded leopards, black bears, red pandas and Himalayan musk deer. It’s an intimidating but beautiful place, where lush jungle covers the hillsides of steep river valleys. I immediately noticed how the tracks and the villages became much cleaner after we entered the park.
It did become smooth sailing after the unfortunate start. I finally felt that we were able to make progress and reach our goals. The trail was amazing. It was so wide we made it through the leeches warzone with only a single bite. We never felt lost again and came into town early in the afternoon, so there was plenty of time to unwind and relax. After 12 days we spotted other white people and I could finally unzip my pants and walk in shorts.
I couldn’t bear the thought yet of crawling back into that tent, so while team France switched between a room and camping we slept inside. I know that at some point I’ll have to, but not just yet. Even if it wasn’t for the storm, carrying and sleeping in a wet tent for 10 days was enough. Our bodies deserved a break.
Going up to 3500 meters we found ourselves in a very similar situation as we did before. It was still foggy, cold and raining. Actually, for 18 days straight, we were soaking wet from endless pouring rain. This time though, we had a fire to sit by, a roof over our heads, dinner that was served in the evening. My stomach got upset again from eating too much food too fast after a period with only little food. Yet this time, there was a toilet nearby. It wasn’t more than a hole in the ground but it had a roof and walls so it was dry, private and leech-free. The context we were in was entirely different. Even though things were simple, it was more than enough to keep us comfortable.
We met some really interesting characters during our tea house stays. We met amazing Sherpa people who had climbed Everest 7 to 9 times, who came down from Makalu expeditions, who had been on Baruntse and Manaslu and Kanchenjunga and more of those giant mountains towering around us. There was a 70 year old Dutch man who had been in Nepal 9 times and who helped a village rebuild their school and water supply after the earthquake. There was a German couple who above all was going to sleep in their tent, until one night it flooded and they had to go inside. And then there were the teahouse wardens themselves: living impossible lives in impossible places, but always greeting you with a smile.
The trail became rougher on the way to Yangale Kharka as it descended to the Barun Nadi river. This river created a deep and treacherous valley in the heart of the national park, where many landslides had wiped out the trail. Some were small and easy to cross, some were monstrous and powerful, changing the entire outline of the valley. I wondered if they were caused during the earthquake, or the monsoons after. Ian warned us that after the quake, there was much unstable ground left.
On day 6 of this leg into Yangale Kharka, I felt terrible. The previous day we had crossed two high passes at 4200m, and slept for the first time at 3900. I had a terrible head ache and coughed my lungs out. I was the only one seemingly bothered by the altitude and that bothered me. I started doubting if that cough was from a cold I couldn’t seem to shake in the eternal dampness of things, or if something more serious and altitude related was going on. I couldn’t breathe and every move hurt.
Deep inside my veins however, I felt that I was missing something. Dhal bat, noodles and oats alone would not get me there. My stomach was really bad again. I thought a lot about fish and green leaved vegetables. I couldn’t hold in any water: everything I drank came straight out again. I lost as much weight on the GHT in 15 days as I did on the TA in 3-4 months: somewhere between 5 and 8 kg. The little layer of fat I had saved up for during summer, which I assumed would slowly be eaten away over a few months time, had altogether vanished. I wasn’t altitude sick. I was just sick, exhausted and weak.
PJ and I started plundering the pantries of tea houses, picking out the carbs, the fats and the salts. We had pastas for lunch, dhal bat for dinner and saved what we couldn’t eat for breakfast. Chips replaced cookies and sodas replaced tea. It cost us a heck of a lot of money but we realised we had no choice but to eat whatever it was we could find, if we were to continue this trail to its end.
A bit better but still with legs that felt like jelly, we set out from Yangale to Langmale Kharka. For the first time, the sky was clear. The horizon was filled with immense snow-capped mountains which grew bigger and bigger around every corner. It was one of the most beautiful stretches of trail we walked. Some of it looked exactly like the landscapes of the Nærøyfjord: steep, sheer walls with pastures in between and waterfalls thundering down the slopes, pointy peaks carved by the elements. It was a piece of Norway elevated by 3500 meters, magnified by two and bordered by mountains so big I can not even begin to describe them.
I felt tiny, like a little shell lost somewhere in the bottom of the sea. I felt that we were approaching the end of the world, that there was nothing beyond the empty space where the pine woods ended and the white giants towered. The numbers I knew: Makalu, 8463m; Everest, 8848m; Lhotse, 8148m. Yet to see these numbers become a reality is an experience that can not be put into words. PJ looked at me with equally startled eyes and said:”Even if this is as far as I’ll make it, it was still worth it.”
At Langmale, we woke up to find the green pastures we had crossed the day before covered in a white blanket. Snow was persistently falling from the sky, forcing us to wait for a few hours before we could continue. At around 11 the snow finally abated and we could push on. The snow made everything look even more as a journey to the end of the world.
My mind, slightly high from a lack of oxygen, could only process the situation by thinking that we were walking through some absurd movie scene. We were wandering through the land beyond the Wall: it would not even have surprised me if a white walker showed up. Then suddenly the sun broke through and we proceeded in shorts, gaiters and a t-shirt through the white wastelands. But as soon as she appeared, she disappeared again, forcing us back into beanies and down jackets to wade through more snow.
Upon arrival Makalu showed its peak, shining orange above the fog in the evening sun. At base camp we found no guide, no porter and no gear as we had agreed upon before we left Kathmandu. We agreed to wait there for two days. PJ and I finally managed to kill off our stomach bugs (which, in hindsight, were probably giarrdia). Without more sprints to the toilet we made ourselves comfortable. We sat and waited.
“This one’s for the faithless, the ones that are surprised. They’re only where they are now, regardless of their fight. This one’s for believing, if only for it’s sake. Come on friends, get up now.”
Total ascent: 10750 meters
Total descent: 7990 meters
Distance covered: 145 km
Weight lost: 5-7 kg